WASHINGTON — School districts cannot be forced to pay damages to a student who was sexually abused by a teacher unless officials knew of the abuse and failed to stop it, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 5-4 decision broadly shields public schools, as well as most colleges and universities, from paying damages for sexual harassment claims.
Even a school system that fails to set a policy against sexual harassment and does not give students a way to complain about abuse is not subject to liability under federal law, the high court said.
The Clinton administration and women's rights groups had maintained that school systems that hire teachers who engage in sexual relations with students should be forced to pay damages to the victims, regardless of whether officials knew about the teachers' activities.
The court's conservative majority disagreed, saying that it makes no sense to hold school districts liable for secret affairs between teachers and students.
"No one questions that a student suffers extraordinary harm when subjected to sexual harassment and abuse by a teacher and the teacher's conduct is reprehensible," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. She added that teachers who prey on students can be disciplined, fired or even jailed in the worst cases.
But the school system should not be required to pay large judgments for abuse of which it was unaware, she concluded.
Congress did not intend to "divert educational funding from beneficial uses" to pay for the damages in such lawsuits, she wrote.
Writing for the dissenters, Justice John Paul Stevens accused the court of ranking "protection of the school district's purse above the protection of immature high school students."
The ruling throws out a damage suit filed by the mother of a Texas school girl who was lured into a sexual affair with a teacher when she was 14. The two were later caught together, and the teacher, Frank Waldrop, was fired and jailed.
Monday's ruling is the first of three expected from the Supreme Court within the next week on the subject of sexual harassment.
In two other cases, the court is expected to rule on when employers can be forced to pay damages for harassment perpetrated by one of their supervisors. Those cases turn on a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, gender or ethnicity.
Monday's decision focused on a different law, the Title IX education provision of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination by schools and colleges receiving federal funds.
Title IX is credited with sparking a revolution in women's sports. To achieve gender equity, high schools and colleges were forced to greatly expand and improve their athletic programs for women.
In the last decade, women's rights lawyers also looked to the law as a means of attacking sexual harassment of students. They have brought damage claims against school systems that failed to prevent sexual harassment of girls, whether by teachers or others.
Recently, most of these complaints have come from students who were repeatedly harassed by other students. The Supreme Court has yet to consider that issue directly, although it is being asked to do so in another pending appeal.
However, Monday's ruling suggests that the justices are not inclined to force school systems to pay damage claims, except when officials are told of the harassment and ignore it.
Women's rights advocates said that they were disappointed and disturbed by the decision.
"They are essentially saying ignorance is bliss," said Paula Pearlman, an attorney for the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles. "We think this is the wrong message to send to schools and teachers."
Martha Davis, legal director for the NOW Legal Defense Fund in New York, also faulted the court for taking away the threat of liability in sexual harassment cases.
"A damage verdict is what causes school districts all over to sit up and take notice. This takes away the incentive for them to do something about the problem," she said.
But an official of the Los Angeles Unified School District said that educators already take the problem of harassment seriously.
"We have a strong sexual harassment policy. We inform students annually of their rights under Title IX, and every secondary school has a manager who handles complaints," said Deanne Neiman, director of educational equity compliance for LAUSD.
Other school officials in Southern California said that complaints about sexual harassment by teachers are relatively rare but that they prompt a quick response.
"Once they know about it, believe me, school districts jump right on it," said Ronald Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education. He said that his office receives one or two harassment complaints a year. When the allegations are sustained, the employee is usually dismissed and the case turned over to police, he said.